Every year on the 4th of July, I sit down and watch 1776, a musical (!) about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. It never fails to make me feel good about my nation. But this year was the first that I actually felt affected by it. Perhaps this is because I have spent almost year out of America, the longest I have ever been away from home. I’m used to spending 3-6 months at a time away from home, and have been since I first started attending college at St. Andrews when I was eighteen years old. But a whole year outside the nation of my birth, and the nation that I still feel a deep and abiding connection to, definitely has affected me. So on the 4th, watching 1776 had a peculiar resonance with me.
It wasn’t, amazingly enough, about the actual object of the Revolution. It was about what it means to be an American. I found myself focusing not on what the characters of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were saying, but on what their opposition said. Not that I agree in any way with the opposition, rather that I began to consider what it means to be an American, in all our eccentricities, our values, and our contradictions. For our nation was born out of contrast and contradiction, a dedication to tradition given us by our British forebears, and a hope for the future and progress that came with not only ceasing to be a part of the British Empire, but also with the curious mix of ethnicities and races that make up the weird and wonderful place of the United States.
This came home to me watching the arguments that 1776 puts forth. While not the most historically accurate of films, it does give a sense of the very real controversies underlying American independence. Most specifically for me, it comes in the character of Edward Rutledge, the delegate from South Carolina and one of the leaders (in the movie) of the opposition.
I’ve become positively fascinated by Rutledge, and not just because he gets one of the best songs in the movie (or that John Cullum has one hell of a baritone and looks good in ruffles). Rather it is because both he and Dickinson, as the most stalwartly opposed to independence, express an element of America that we tend to either vilify or ignore. ‘Molasses to Rum’, although not historically accurate (the historical Rutledge did not oppose any sort of anti-slavery clause in the Declaration and Thomas Jefferson did not free his slaves until after his death), is a powerful polemic against hypocrisy. While it is easy to vilify Rutledge as a slave-holder, it is a hard pill to swallow when he points out that commerce in America was built upon slavery. That while the South may have held the whip, the North reaped the rewards of an economy built on blood and suffering. As white Americans, there’s not one of us that gets to take the high road on this one. And as a Northerner with numerous Southern relations and background, I feel quite aware of the question.
But beyond the slavery question, the character of Rutledge provides one of the more interesting points of 1776. America might be divided along North/South, East/West/Midwest binaries, but we are all (and here’s the bombshell) Americans. This country does not belong to the flag-waving creationists. But it also is not the sole property of eastern liberals. Claiming that one man does not (and cannot) understand another because of the location of his home, the state he was born in, the color of his skin, how long ago his ancestors came to this nation, what his first language is, etc, etc, is quite simply a cop-out. We won’t take the time to listen. Not to the pundits or the politicians, but to each other.
This is not to say that we’re all going to agree. We’re not. Nor is it to say that we should bow down to ignorance, bigotry, or the curtailing of basic human rights. But, as Americans, we’re stuck with each other. I’m not going to move to Canada, like some of my liberal friends have threatened (especially after Bush was elected). Because this is MY country. I love America. And I believe in it enough to want to understand the people here. I have a strange hope that if we were to only stop, all of us, and face each other as Americans, to accept that we are all a part of the same nation, we might actually discover that we don’t disagree quite as much as we think we do, or that at least those disagreements are not as earth-shattering as we make them out to be. As it is, we refuse to understand each other. It’s not because we can’t. It’s because we won’t.